9 June 2016
Striking comic books are often stitched together using bright, vivid characters between multi-coloured pages which are filled with untamed slapstick from start to finish. These stories are crammed into fairly short magazines whereby one-liners and plots appear inside speech-bubbles materialising from character’s mouths, filling hearts with glee as, on a weekly or monthly basis, each personality’s little idiosyncrasies proceed to leave their own animated impression on us, the readers. And herein lies the successful formula which Edinburgh’s Loud Poets collective abide by.
Describing their shows as slam-style, make some noise, fist-thumping, pint-drinking, side-tickling, heart-wrenching poetry, attending a Loud Poets performance is perhaps not intended for sweet-tempered cardigan-clad librarians cycling home to pots of Earl Grey tea but the treasure lies within the coursing array of performers selected each month; some as brash and atypical as one may expect, others perspicacious, canny, and dare I say it, controlled. This month’s event, the final one during this cycle, was advertised as “Exile On Sauchiehall Street”, a play on the name of the 1972 album released by The Rolling Stones, bringing together some of the most exciting, mostly young, talents in the Scottish spoken word scene today:
Kevin McLean – Iona Lee – Jack Macmillan -Freddie Alexander -Catherine Wilson – Michelle Fisher – Katharine Macfarlane – Katie Ailes – Hugh Kelly (musician) – Loud Band – Open Mic poets
It is Loud Poets tradition now to begin proceedings with the Open Mic set, allowing newcomers to try out the audience and, subsequently, present themselves as the sacrificial poet. This month it was between Jade Mitchell, Ben Rodgers, and Fiona Stirling to fight it out. It was the solitary male who emerged victor, producing an endearing ramshackle performance, earning the right to be on the Loud Poets bill when the show returns in September 2016.
Adding to the mix were the Loud Poets backing band Ekobirds. This concept has been introduced with the aspiration of affixing extra value to each spoken word artists’ words, and whilst obviously demonstrating their own prowess, advertises the perks of musical accompaniment brings to poetry. Fresh from performing five days in Prague with the band, the Loud Poet mainstays Catherine Wilson, Kevin McLean, Freddie Alexander and Katie Ailes would all feature through different points of the evening, exhibiting exactly why this is rated as one of the highest regarded showcases of performance poetry in the country.
As each poet introduces another, the night is kept fresh by a revolving door of one-poem performers leaping on and off the stage. Among the youngest performers of the evening, Jack MacMillan’s theatrical performances at regular poetry showcases such as Edinburgh’s Soapbox and Glasgow’s Aloud have turned him into a slam-winning shaman, delivering thunderous rituals in front of nothing less than the Scottish Slam Final audience. Jack’s fun, easy-going manner flourished during “I Wish I Had A Ladder”, slipping into the character Zed from the Police Academy franchise at times. His enthusiasm sometimes loses words, or vowels, such is the speed in which the performer delivers each line, but Jack’s zeal for not eating veal in his vegan poem later in the evening tapped into pertinent issue concerning agriculture, demonstrating there was more than just comedy and showmanship to the student’s talent.
Equally so, there is a depth to the words of Michelle Fisher which needs to be cherished. Selected for inclusion in BBC Radio 1Xtra’s Words First hunt for Scotland’s finest young poets, Michelle has developed into an exceedingly skilled poet over the last twelve months. Short, sharp rhyming structures were used to tackle body image, consumerism, and depression issues in her opening poem, only to be outdone by another effort concerning rape culture. Never shying away from thorny talking points, Michelle’s diagnosis of zoo visits being likened to “walking among predators” and “treated like cattle” actually convinced me that the piece concerned international terrorism, but the bullet-pointed delivery of the rules one must abide by (1. Do not touch the animals, 2. Do not feed the animals, etc) rammed home that this was a matter of unwelcome sexual harassment.
In Scottish Slam Champion, the Exile on Sauchiehall Street extravaganza scored a real coup as the sublime Iona Lee was welcomed on stage. The calm and ethereal delivery of Iona’s words danced beautifully with a haunting violin during new poem “Away With The Fairies”, casting a magic spell over the rambunctious audience. It is a treat to watch Iona deliver poems filled with turns of phrase similar in ilk to that of the UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy such as ‘nature’s half-heard whispers’. A study of a character haunted by his own ‘jaded heartbreaks and mistakes’, living a wretched existence ‘untroubled by the postman’ again demonstrated the remarkable clasp Iona has on using prepossessing language to describe preternatural stories, while the Ekobirds fitted provocative sounds beneath a flush vocal, none more so than on third poem “Bad Blood”.
Between the Loud Poets themselves, a sense of progression was apparent. Catherine Wilson’s philosophical questions about life were balanced by a degree of sharp-witted humour, while a self-study of anxiety issues was delivered with the reverence one would expect towards mental health. Catherine’s punch is pronounced with lines describing anxiousness akin to “a thousand bear traps in the mind / of doing a striptease at a funeral”. These are extraordinary lines which have no intention of tip-toeing round the matter at the core of her poems. Likewise, Katie Ailes continues to recite memories of her own in a manner that makes the listener think it was their childhoods, puberty, and adolescence. Katie’s delivery is one of such charming effect that the band behind her melts into the stories that the audience feasts on, digesting the morals which are conjured up about learning, music, creativity, and love.
On the Y chromosome of the Loud Poets collective, Kevin McLean introduced “The Game” in which the writer presents histories upon characters in and around Edinburgh city. This was a captivating, far more steadied performance from Kevin as he introduced Alice, Steven, and Bill at various stages through the evening – far less stage-driven but executed carefully, sincerely, and in a beguiling way which suggests new territory is being explored. The easy-going manner of Freddie Alexander, he of the much-heralded Inky Fingers spoken word night in Edinburgh, dips in and out of American folklore using occasional religious figurative language which remains with the listener – ‘A hunting rifle pointed at the exposed heart of God’ and ‘Listen to people – all their words are birdsong’ just two of the stunning lines which Freddie delivered. Did I mention that Freddie also did his dissertation on comic books? Well, he did! In fact, the only sour point, if I may call it such, was the continued finger-clicking adopted by persons who attend Loud Poets shows as a means of encouragement. Leave the thumbs for saluting the performers, folks – it’s naff and becoming something of a bugbear.
And so, one increasingly exciting poet to talk about. The evocative language used by Katharine Macfarlane to bring Scottish towns and countryside to life, using fleeting imagery and enchanting chronicles, have had listeners falling like roses thrown upon theatre stages (For reference, consider this sparse, 32 worded poem and the stone circle in Orkney which is at the seam of Katharine’s poem “Ring of Brodgar” http://stanzapoetry.org/blog/poetry-map-scotland-poem-no-190-ring-brodgar-orkney). Tonight, Katharine’s charms were reserved for matters of family concern – history, the future, knowledge, and identity all brought to the fore in a sweet-hearted ode to her four year old daughter. The parental love in Katharine’s poetry continued to flourish in her next poem, ‘counting the stars and what was left of the moon’, leaving a genuine empathy with anyone who recalls their parents being their best friends when they were young.
Between the two halves, the free sugary treat that comes with all comics appeared in the form of Hugh Kelly who delivered a stunning three-song set on guitar, including songs from his ‘Give Me All Your Love’ EP and a resounding cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Do check the musician out – he was a genuine delight and welcome addition to the evening’s proceedings.
The Loud Poets night does what it says on the tin. It encourages shouting from the audience, it insists on a camaraderie between performers and audience, and it is a delight to see live in person. For the performers, it is an opportunity to enhance their own skills – read without the safety net of a book in hand, play with a band behind you, and receive the genuine warmth and support of everyone in the room there as an audience member or as a peer. The collective continues to change since its inception in early 2014, and unlike the Bash Street Kids, there is a suspicion that each will keep taking poetry to higher levels, graduating into new territories. Check them out while we still have them.
Reviewer : Stephen Watt